Acton Institute Powerblog

A Market for Disability: Down Syndrome and the Economic Imagination

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Jamie Bérubé
Jamie Bérubé

In a powerful profile of his son Jamie, a young man with Down syndrome, Michael Bérubé explores some of the key challenges that those with disabilities face when trying to enter the workforce:

The first time I talked to Jamie about getting a job, he was only 13. But I thought it was a good idea to prepare him, gradually, for the world that would await him after he left school. My wife, Janet, and I had long been warned about that world: By professionals it was usually called “transitioning from high school.” By parents it was usually called “falling off the cliff.” After 21 years of early intervention programs for children with disabilities…there would be nothing. Or so we were told.

At 13, Jamie reported that he wanted to be a marine biologist. A very tall order, I thought; but he knew the differences between seals and sea lions, he knew that dolphins are pinnipeds, and he knew far more about sharks than most sixth graders. And despite his speech delays, he could say “cartilaginous fish” pretty clearly. Perhaps he could work at an aquarium?

Bérubé goes on to tell the story of Jamie’s education and upbringing, which includes the unfortunate descent from that lofty childhood dream to his current unemployment at age 22. “By the end of the year [at age 13]…Jamie had lowered his sights from ‘marine biologist’ to ‘marine biologist helper,’ Bérubé writes. “And by the end of eighth grade…when he was asked what he might do for a living when he graduated, he said dejectedly, ‘Groceries, I guess.’”

Despite testing at rather high levels for his disability, and despite having years of experience working in various low-wage and volunteer jobs, Jamie continues to struggle in his search for a career, even in areas like factory work, food service, or hospitality.

Yet when reading the profile, one can’t avoid being struck by the gifts he has to offer. From his attitude to his ambition to the skills he’s already demonstrated, Jamie has something unique to contribute. “Jamie loved all his jobs, and his co-workers and supervisors loved him,” his father writes. “He is, after all, bright, gregarious and effervescent…He applied himself fully — he is no slacker — and he always took care to do his jobs right.”

The question, then, is whether the market has a place for such contributions:

I knew Jamie would not grow up to be a marine biologist. And I know that there are millions of non-disabled Americans out of work or underemployed, whose lives are less happy than Jamie’s. I don’t imagine that he has a “right” to a job that supersedes their needs. But I look sometimes at the things he writes in his ubiquitous legal pads when he is bored or trying to amuse himself — like the page festooned with the names of all 67 Pennsylvania counties, written in alphabetical order — and I think, isn’t there any place in the economy for a bright, gregarious, effervescent, diligent, conscientious and punctual young man with intellectual disabilities, a love of animals and an amazing cataloguing memory and insatiable intellectual curiosity about the world? (emphasis added)

Unfortunately, many fail to see that those with disabilities have anything to offer, whether in the marketplace or otherwise. With the abortion rate of those with Down syndrome edging 90%, a portion of our society assumes a disturbing mindset of limitation and marginalization toward those with disabilities. Yet, as Jordan Ballor recently wrote, “Each one of us, created in the image of God, has the capacity to be a productive steward of some kind.” God created each of us, and he has blessed each of us with particular gifts, talents, and capacity, regardless of what dollar amount the market does or does not assign to our contributions.

Taking this into account, we also ought not blindly assume that the market is assessing those with disabilities accurately. Is it really a matter of our economy not having demand for Jamie and others like him? Or is it that most of us are stuck in various preconceptions and prejudices, and we need to expand our economic imaginations when it comes to those with disabilities? When reviewing stories like Jamie’s and those of others like him (see here and here), it seems far from settled that the potential of these individuals is being duly recognized, realized, and rewarded.

Given the transformative power of business and the proven ability of those like Jamie to flourish in such settings, Christian entrepreneurs, executives, and business owners ought to heed these stories and respond in turn, challenging their typical human tendencies to box others in and impose limited notions of “value” on the contributions of others. What we see as a “disability” may very well be the exact opposite.

If given the chance and the investment, Jamie and others like him are bound to surprise us and contribute to our economic future in new and profound ways.

Materially? Perhaps. Before and beyond all of that? Most certainly.

HT: Chris Horst

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles DVD & Blu-Ray Combo Pack

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles DVD & Blu-Ray Combo Pack

For the Life of the World is an entertaining film series that explores the deeper meaning of Salvation. Have you ever wondered, “What is my Salvation actually FOR?” Is it only about personal atonement, about getting to heaven, or something that comes later? Is it just to have a “friend in Jesus?”

Join Evan Koons and his friends – Stephen Grabill, Amy Sherman, Anthony Bradley, Makoto Fujimura, John M. Perkins, Tim Royer and Dwight Gibson – as they discover a “new perspective,” the BIGGER picture of what it means to be “in the world, not of it.” This seven-part film series will help you, your friends, church or organization investigate God’s Economy of All Things – OIKONOMIA (a Greek word that has a lot to say about God’s plan for his creation, the world, and us.)

This Combo Pack includes a letter from Evan and two discs for your player of choice: DVD and Blu-ray. Enjoy seven episodes around 20 minutes each, along with episode teaser videos, a series trailer, and bonus content.

Explore how God’s purposes are woven into every area of our lives: family, work, art, charity, education, government, recreation and all creation! The Bible calls us Strangers and Pilgrims, living in "the now and not yet" of God’s Kingdom Come on earth. We are also called to be salt and light, to have a transforming presence among our neighbors. Rediscover the role of the church and how our lives lived on earth matter in God’s plan for the world.

Designed for deep exploration, the series invites viewers to watch the series again for new insights. Also, check out the companion Field Guide to jump-start group and individual investigation and enhance the film experience! FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD Field Guides are available in print or via streaming access at

Joseph Sunde Joseph Sunde is a writer and project coordinator for the Acton Institute, serving as editor of the Letters to the Exiles blog and content manager of the Oikonomia channel at He is the founder of Remnant Culture and was a longtime contributor to AEI's Values & Capitalism project. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Mission:Work, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.


  • Really appreciate this article. With a son who also had Down syndrome, we face the same questions about the future. The perceived economic value of our special needs children may not be appreciated in the work place, but I can say that the impact my son and others will have for the kingdom is incalculable on earth. He has already encouraged and inspired so many in his six years.

  • LeticiaVelasquez

    You are absolutely right, Christian entrepreneurs are the ones who ought to step forward and offer jobs to our children,not out of charity, but because of their faith in Christ, they see more than a resume. Thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, Christians see the whole person, and our children are brimming with hope, joy and love. I do not know a single workplace that could not be enhanced by a cheerful, hardworking and considerate co-worker, and when they have the right skill set to boot, they make exceptional employees, with excellent attendance records.

    • Joseph Sunde

      Thank you for your comment, Leticia. Very well said.